How American Food Got So Bad (Ep. 53): Full Transcript

This is the full transcript for “How American Food Got So Bad.” To comment, please go here.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio, that moment of our lives — every couple of weeks — where we talk to with Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and blog of the same name. The subject matter is the hidden side of everything.

Dubner, it’s good to talk to you my friend.

Stephen Dubner: Good to talk to you Kai. And I have a question for you if you don’t mind.

Ryssdal: Of course, that’s kind of how these things go, isn’t it?

Dubner: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate America’s food — I’m curious to know?

Ryssdal: OK, big topics. Uh… 7.3.

Dubner: Yeah, all right. So… um…

Ryssdal: So is there a right answer?

Dubner: No, there is no right answer. I was just curious. You know why? Because we love to complain about our food.

Ryssdal: Yes.

Dubner: And for those who like to complain, there’s a new book coming out called “An Economist Gets Lunch,” by Tyler Cowen. And he explains — how he puts it — “How American Food Got Bad.” And some of the explanations are really interesting. For starters, he blames Prohibition.

Tyler Cowen: A lot of good restaurants, they make a lot of the profits on the drinks. When you shut down their ability to sell wine, beer, other drinks, basically it put them all out of business. Those quality restaurants, within a period of year or two, they vanished.

Ryssdal: Yes, but Dubner, Prohibition was like 80 years ago, man.

Dubner: It is true but many profound effects have distant causes — as I’ve tried to teach you, grasshopper. Anyway, we did bounce back — but what we did was we bounced back in volume of restaurants. But a lot of them were diners and cafeterias. Cowen says we began to cater more than any other nation to our children’s palates.

Cowen: Compared to a lot of Asian cultures, or European cultures, when it comes to the food scene, very often in America the child is in charge, and that again means soft, and sweet, and gooey.

Dubner: So you’ve got soft, sweet and gooey food taking center stage — plus, Cowen argues, a lack of new flavors. Can you guess why we didn’t get any new flavors?

Ryssdal: A lack of new flavors? No, I got nothing.

Dubner: Immigration. Or, really, the lack immigration. The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas that weren’t lifted until the 1960s. More immigration generally means more food innovation. New — you know, everything — spices, ingredients, know-how strategies — and we weren’t getting a lot of either of those.

Ryssdal: OK, but let me throw another one at you, though just for the heck of it: What about convenience? We were in the ’40s and ’50s a more mobile society. We wanted convenience wanted frozen, we wanted drive-thru and all that good stuff.

Dubner: That’s exactly right. Cowen, he says that — this is interesting — it’s kind of a byproduct of World War II. Which is that during the war, out of necessity, we had to learn to can, package and transport food on a much bigger scale than ever before. And when the war was over, we liked our Spam. We hung onto it, and all those processes that came along with it. What’s interesting though is that in Europe World War II had the opposite effect.

Cowen: It shut down a lot of transportation, it shut down a lot of borders. So people ate very locally. They would grow things in their gardens. You know, they might even eat the family pet. Do things that we might not find that tasty or that pleasant. But the result in Europe was to make it more local, not less.

Ryssdal: OK, so now that I think about it, the family pet is probably like a cow or a pig — not Fido, right?

Dubner: Depends on your family, Kai. I can’t speak for your family.

Ryssdal: And local makes sense too, right?

Dubner: It does and you know American food now, Cowen — and just about everybody else — argues, is on the upswing. And a big part of that is this local movement — the idea that we should all eat more local food, maybe all local food, which might taste better often. But as a solution to the food future — the idea of feeding more and more people around the world nutritious and affordable food — Cowen argues that the locavore movement is a little bit snobbish and a lot impractical.

Cowen: The biggest food problem in the world today is that agricultural productivity is slowing down, and for a lot of the world food prices are going up. And for that we need more business technology and innovation, not locavore-ism.

Ryssdal: You are going to get such hate mail, can I tell you?

Dubner: Well, I think we should direct the hate mail to you this time after the turkey breast incident.

Ryssdal: Oh man, I’m still hearing about that! Stephen Dubner, is the website. Couple of weeks, huh?

Dubner: Talk to you soon, Kai. Thanks.

This is the full transcript for “How American Food Got So Bad.” To comment, please go here.


"Cowen: The biggest food problem in the world today is that agricultural productivity is slowing down, and for a lot of the world food prices are going up. And for that we need more business technology and innovation, not locavore-ism."

I totally agree. One reason that's happening is today's anti-big-business attitude, whether it's against Big Oil, Big Pharma, or Big Agriculture. People who haven't had ab economics course don't understand economies of scale. Add to that environmental extremism, animal rights activism, organic snobbishness, and "locavore-ism," and more expensive food is inevitable.


Yes, but in a deregulated commodities market, price fluctuations aren't tied to supply and demand and economies of scale, they're tied to speculators making investments, and seeing as they have really only taken long positions in those markets, they've continued to drive the price up (Or, perhaps more accurately, into a cycle of spikes and crashes).

I don't think anyone would make an argument against improved technology and innovation, not against useful economies of scale. Incidentally, when you talk about an 'anti-big-business' attitude, I don't really see that attitude anywhere it could make a real effect - e.g. in business, in government, in Walmart. I am sure there are hippies who are like totally against evil corporations, man, but I couldn't say whether they were part of the food problem.


@Curt. "I don't think anyone would make an argument against improved technology and innovation . . ." Apparently you don't watch the news. My blog on the ABC news report on the egg farm talks about them arguing against improved technology and which contributes to the problem. It also talks about the thousands of illnesses and hundreds of deaths from organic and "natural" food (CDC report) . . . who promotes organic food more than hippies?

" . . . I don't really see that attitude anywhere it could make a real effect . . . e.g. in business . . . Walmart . . ." Really? Have you heard of Occupy Wall Street" or "Occupy Wal-Mart" or "Occupy-Ports" ?

And I seem to remember a certain president complaining about the "innovation" of ATMs having reduced bank teller jobs. Perhaps we should go back to digging ditches with shovels, it that would create lots of new jobs.


David P.

I'll try to be as informative as possible, no hate mail here, just a different perspective.

Economies of scale bring efficiencies to farming in the form of reduced cost. The cost is reduced by the reduction of labor intensive farming and the implementation of mechanized farming. This may seem to be a good trade off in the Western World where labor is expensive but in the Third world where labor is cheap where is the benefit of converting to mechanization?

There are a number of problems from what I can see. First, the efficiencies of scale are in the form of reduced labor costs. Second, increased the cost of capital (fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, and farm equipment). Third, reducing the total amount of food that can be grown per acre (not for crop farms but for intensive foods like vegetables which can be grown in much large quantities when carefully tended (very labor intensive), see "One Circle: How to Grow a Complete Diet in Less Than 1,000 Square Feet").

The First and Second points. For the Third World, reducing labor is not an issue so much as reducing capital expenses (fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, and farm equipment). The capital expenses matter because the materials must all be purchased from overseas with a limited amount of money. The greater the cost of farm equipment the more locally produced goods (food, minerals, etc...) must be exported to pay for the farm equipment and other associated materials. While, on the other hand, if the labor cost are high the money does not by necessity leave the country to pay for farm equipment. the food cost could be higher and yet the food could be more affordable for locals of the country (since the money is circulated locally), while if the money is exported then no matter how cheap the food is there won't necessary be money to pay for the food (similar to the depression in the U.S. where farmers poured milk into ditches while people starved down the road, not for lack of food but for lack of money to pay for the food). If your trying to reduce hunger then locally grown organic food is good solution. If on the other hand you goal is to increase the GDP of the country then mechanized farming is the solution since the foods best suited to mechanized farming are also best suits as cash crops (but it may work against affordability of food).

Third, growing wheat, rice, and other bulk cash crops may well be suited to mechanized farming due to the very very large labor cost involved and the large areas required to grow substantial quantities. While this is true it does not mean that all food is best grown in this manner. Vegetable are a good example, since they can be grown in far large quantities on small organically farmed patches of land. These methods are not suited to the production of cash crops, nor would I suggest that be used to do so, but it is important to use the best methods for each type of crop (i.e. organically grown cotton, wheat, rice, etc, probably don't make sense). The terms commonly used are 'extensive' vs 'intensive'. Where 'extensive' refers to bulk crops that are best suited to growing in large quantities over large areas of land. 'Intensive' refers to food that is best suited to growing on a small scale with organic techniques and requires a large amount of labor over a small amount of land.



@DavidP - More organic food means more illnesses and death from food-borne illness (says the CDC). Just ONE quote from the link ". . . people who eat organic and “natural” foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria . . .

David P.

Good point. It does sound like the problems associated with organic farming could be solved by better education of the risks and how to mitigate them (i.e. composting for the necessary amount of time to kill the bacteria from manure). It appears that part of the problem is not sterilizing food to keep the food pure from contamination (no antimicrobial preservatives, or clean fruit with un-chlorinated water). I’m not a food purity type of person like many that prefer organic; I’m more concerned about the long term viability of the food production system. World Phosphate Rock reserves are somewhere between 30 and 40 years after which we will have few options. When the options become, produce food organically or eat dust, the risks of organic become more acceptable.

It is actually a fair criticism of “industrial farming” to claim that it may be responsible for the creation of the more resilient strains of the bacteria since antibiotics are heavily used in the production of beef cattle (it is well documented that heavy use of antibiotic breeds more resistant bacteria). The blame doesn’t really matter though, what’s done is done and that doesn’t excuse poor food cleansing standers.

Pesticide use as mentioned in the article you mentioned may not have had any harmful affect on humans, but it has had on many other animals. DDT was banned because it nearly wiped out the U.S national symbol, ‘the Bald Eagle’ because the pesticide built up in the food chain until it was deadly to the eagles. There is also the example of the die off of U.S. honey bees a few years ago, where the FDA (I think) approved a new pesticide despite the warning from their own researchers who warned that it could have unintended consequences for non-targeted insects (one third of the U.S. Honey Bee population died in one year). The only reason that is known is that the internal FDA reports were leaked by Private Bradley Manning.

The tropics (mentioned in the article) are very poor farmland since much of it is easily eroded and is not well suited to long term farming since the minerals in the soil are not from recent rock erosion but are from very old rock erosion where the minerals were recycled by the plants generation after generation. After the minerals are removed from the land in the form of produce, the soils become infertile after just a few years of farming (necessitating fertilizer but in the cast of the tropics the land is normally abandoned and left to erode, while the farmer moves onto new land. This is a big reason why the tropical rain forests are disappearing so fast). All that was to say, that it is unlikely that the agriculturally cultivated area of the world would increase if organic farming was practiced. Actually, organic farming techniques keep these easily degraded lands in production for longer than normal farming techniques since the farmer actually to keeps the soil in better (less easily eroded) conditions. For a more complete picture of long term erosion problems ‘Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations’ is an excellent source of information.


pete KD

@becky . "And I seem to remember a certain president complaining about the “innovation” of ATMs having reduced bank teller jobs"
yes this is true but the problem is not technology but how big business uses it. their popular model is to increase tech and lay off workers to maximise profits. but this is not the only option. there is another model. which is to increase tech, keep work force but give them a pay raise and lower the amount of overall work time that they go through during the week. this allows for profit, keeps the work force busy and allows for expantion. the largest difference is that profits are not maximised.
and it isnt the workers asking for big business to maximise profits. its big business.
it matters very little whever your pro or anti-business as curt previously mentioned.
perhaps you should look online for different business models instead of just parroting what youve taken from one tv channel and therefore one perspective.
good luck searching sweetie xx